Why the Gender Gap in Policing is a Public Safety Crisis

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Photo by Carl Wycoff via Flickr

With the recent resignations of Chief Erika Shields in Atlanta, Chief Jami Resch from Portland and Chief Carmen Best in Seattle, U.S. policing has lost three top women leaders at a time when we need them the most.

Female representation in the nation’s approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies has remained stuck around 12 percent for more than 25 years. Women only make up roughly three percent of police executive leadership, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The problem isn’t just gender equality. The gender gap in policing represents a public safety crisis. As cities, states and the federal government debate the proper role of policing, there is strong reason to believe that women make for safer and less violent law enforcement officers.

Research shows that women are less likely to use excessive force or to be accused of excessive force.

A 2017 report by the Pew Research Center found that women are less likely to pull their weapons and are less likely to view aggressive tactics as necessary. And a National Center for Women & Policing study also found that women police officers were less likely to be named in a lawsuit or a citizen complaint.

The benefits of women officers go beyond preventing unnecessary police force or improving police-community relations.

A 2017 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that adding more women to law enforcement agencies results in greater organizational agility — improving departments’ ability to adapt, change and renew.

This organizational skill is critical to successfully heeding calls for reform in policing culture. Too many departments remain stuck in the past. More women can help them catch up with policing best practices.

Clearly the nation knows that something is wrong.

With the growing call for policing reforms, I have been seeing more media highlighting the rare “phenomenon” of women in policing and women in policing top brass leadership positions.

North Carolina made headlines for having six black women leading police departments. Los Angeles County has boasted seven female police chiefs. Philadelphia’s police commissioner is a black woman.

We celebrate these “firsts” as well-earned accomplishments, but I remain perplexed as to why these sorts of headlines still create excitement. After all, it is 2020. The gender gap in law enforcement should be met not with excitement, but with frustration, annoyance and scrutiny — followed by a demand for change.

Yet, despite the documented benefits and friendly headlines, the number of women in law enforcement remains low.

The problem stems from the disproportionate barriers to recruitment, retention and promotion experienced by women officers. The domination of gender stereotypes within departments works to ostracize and marginalize women from the beginning of their careers. The lack of mentoring programs creates unsupportive work environments. And even departments’ haircut policies can be unfriendly to women.

Women also face the problem of tokenism — the feeling that they’re being selectively recruited or promoted as a mere symbolic effort.

In fact, a 2008 study involving face-to-face interviews with women police officers found many were strongly encouraged by their male supervisors to participate in the promotion process, but that this special attention actually dissuaded them from taking those steps.

This experience shows how efforts to grow the number of women in law enforcement must be done intentionally, earnestly and thoroughly. The bare minimum of meeting quotas won’t cut it.

Merely increasing sheer numbers isn’t enough either. Departments also have to ensure that women have equitable opportunities to get to the top and the power to impact policy. It is time to recognize the proven benefits to having women in law enforcement, and that women have the potential to make policing better for agencies and also the communities that they serve.

Nicola Smith-Kea

Nicola Smith-Kea

The idea of women in law enforcement leadership must be treated as real and routine — not something worthy of surprising headlines.

See also: Why Are America’s Women Police Chiefs Resigning? By Dorothy Schulz, The Crime Report, Aug.13, 2020.

Smith-Kea is a criminal justice manager at Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropy. Previously she served as a Law Enforcement Project Manager at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, where she provided technical assistance to the Bureau of Justice Assistance. She welcomes comments from readers.